A posting by David Berkowitz on the Social Media Insider blog caught my attention. It contains some interesting suggestions and observations from a conference attendee and meetings industry outsider. I especially like his suggestions about putting speakers’ twitter handles on the screen while they present and treating bloggers like press (selfish I know). However, I was a little curious about one particular comment. Berkowitz advises conference organizers against creating private social networks just for their attendees. “With rare exceptions, they’re a waste of time, and participants would be better served with groups on existing networks like Facebook and LinkedIn,” he says.
I contacted David Berkowitz for clarification. He elaborated in an email exchange that, “I’ve signed up for a lot of these specialized networks, and most fail because they don’t get enough members using them, and they don’t provide enough value for the members who do. There are occasions where it works, like for SXSW where there’s a large number of attendees, a very complicated schedule, and days of spontaneous networking. Most of the time, however, the people really using the custom event networks for networking purposes (as opposed to just registering to create a schedule) are the obsessive networkers who you try to avoid in the halls as they thrust their business card in your face.”
Having followed the development of these private, event-centric networks like Zerista, Pathable, CrowdVine and EventVue for some time now, I know that they offer far more functionality than the public networks such as Facebook, Linked In, Plaxo and others. According to John Kanarowski of Zerista, some of the main features of his and other platforms include:
1. Meeting scheduler to enable advance scheduling of 1:1 meetings
2. Schedule builder to create and then export your own personal schedule of keynotes, sessions, workshops, etc.
3. Share personal schedule with other attendees
4. Highlight event-specific interests within your profile
5. Match attendees with other attendees, exhibitors and sessions
6. Exhibitor tools like virtual booths and at booth meeting scheduler
7. Embedded webcasting of keynotes, sessions, and workshops
8. Aggregated feed of event-related social media from multiple places on the web (twitter, YouTube, flickr, etc.)
9. Aggregate attendee profiles from other social networks in one place
10. Integrated online registration and payment engine to sell premium online services and content access
11. Ability to charge virtual attendees the same price as in-person attendees for attending the event
12. Interactive maps of the trade show floor, venue and local area
13. Custom privacy settings to enable different access rights for paid attendees, exhibitors, speakers, and visitors
With such robust (cliché marketing term, sorry) tools available, why would apparently seasoned conference goers like David Berkowitz find them ineffective? For one thing, private networking platforms are developed with the needs of the event organizer in mind—understandable since the platforms are generally paid for by the event organizers and are free of charge to users (putting conference registration fees aside). “We’ve found that by focusing on solving the problems of event managers, we can enable them to improve their events in a measurable way. We measure the impact of our software using quantifiable metrics – like the number of 1:1 meetings scheduled in advance, percentage of attendees and exhibitors that use the tools, percentage increase in event networking, percentage increase in event productivity, number of additional leads for exhibitors, and other similar metrics,” says Kanarowksi.
There are other issues to consider. Some attendees don’t take the time to learn how to navigate the networking tools that event organizers provide. Often the tools are too complex for novice social networkers. They don’t know the platforms exist or what they do. Facebook and Twitter are no-brainers and may provide enough functionality for attendees without the bells and whistles offered by customized networking platforms.
It’s true that event-specific platforms separate the wheat from the chaff. They get down to business and allow users to only connect with people that are attending the conference and have access to the same tools, information and mindset that they have. It’s also true, however, that there is value to general networking tools like Facebook and the rest, and in the absence of more evolved platforms (i.e. event organizers can’t afford or don’t understand the potential of private networks), they allow the diligent worker bees and self-organizing social networking aficionados to seek each other out without Big Brother’s help. So, how do we close the gap between what some attendees want or need and what some organizers and solution developers want and offer?
· Event organizers need to take the user experience into consideration when choosing between platforms.
· Solution developers need to do everything possible to promote and enhance adoption rates.
· Attendees need to take responsibility for learning how to harness the power of customized event social networks.
· Let the David Berkowitzs out there be heard!
Tony Stubblebine says
I’m glad you followed up with David for clarification because I think this misconception is driven by experiences with the previous generation of event networking products. Those products did an awful job of getting adoption and, as we should all be figuring out about social software, you need people.
The second wave of products, which include my company CrowdVine, are essentially simplified social networks. The social network model has been proven by the big players like Facebook and MySpace, is well understood by most attendees so you have a shorter learning curve, and is reliably effective when applied to conferences. We’ve personally worked with over 100 events (which is by far the most in this space, but also just a drop in the world of events), and we’ve only had two events which didn’t have at least 30% adoption.
I checked and it looks like David used CrowdVine at Web 2.0 Expo NYC, which had 3200 attendees join, which is more than half of attendees for that event. We got our start with tech events like Web 2.0, but the majority of our business now is with mainstream companies like General Mills and mainstream professions like nurses or librarians.
Mitchell Beer says
It’s an interesting and very timely topic, Michelle. We’ve seen organizations combine private systems like Pathable with all the standard public platforms — the public platforms to drive face-to-face attendance, then a mix of both to try to get dialogue and interaction going before the group gets onsite.
The problem I’ve seen so far (admittedly with a limited sample) is that the conversations on social networks rarely get to the crux of the content that brings a community of interest together, whether that community is gathering onsite, online, or (one hopes) both. The private network for one recent meeting was filled most frequently by the indiscriminate, shotgun networkers that Berkowitz describes, followed by blatant marketing for participants’ products and services, followed by impassioned advance promos for specific conference sessions, followed by a smattering of substantive discussion. The first two of those categories accounted for the lion’s share of the comments. The last two were the ones that mapped back most directly to the purpose and objectives of the event.
This is not to say that social networks, public or private, are without value. I’m just not sure that we’ve figured how to integrate them with the days onsite to strongly reinforce the purpose of the meeting or the objectives of the host organization.
But both points matter a great deal. Particularly in this economy, planners will have very limited time, patience, or money for services that are nice to have but deliver little or no tangible value. Which is just as well, since that’s exactly the attitude many organizations are taking toward the meetings themselves. These are both positive trends for anyone who wants to see meetings mature into a more strategic, forward-looking industry and profession, but it does set a higher bar — for social networks, and for any other product or or service providers trying to find a place in the meetings mix.
Jeff Hurt says
I think the successful online velvet rope conference communities provide more than just social networking and attendee conversations. We used Social Collective this year for our annual conference and are very pleased. It’s the same platform used by SxSW with robust functionality.
The social networks that provide online registration, ecommerce, itinerary planners, integrated emarketing (robust website with customization and email), crowdsourcing applications and integration with existing social networks like Facebook and Twitter will have more success in the meetings and event marketplace.
As to Mitchell’s point about the social network conversations getting to the crux of the content, I’ve seen some extremely successful events with attendees discussing the event’s meaty content. I believe that as people become more comfortable with the social media tools, they begin to transition to conversing and sharing more conversations of depth. I also think it’s the meeting planners job to help educate attendees on the type of virtual conversations such as promotion, sharing speaker content, asking questions, and conversing with both those onsite and the virtual attendees.
Look at some of the transcripts of the Twitter conversations of the following events like Buzz2009, ASAE2009, MPI’s “meet different 2009,” Experient’s e4 and you’ll see some very rich discussions. Follow any #eventprofs chat and you’ll see some great conversations of meeting professionals as well. I’ve also had rich discussions with attendees and speakers during general sessions at our conferences through Wiffiti.com and the Twitter stream.
So the value of private or public social networks really depends upon how the meeting organizer promotes and educates attendees to use them.